What if Lee Remained with the Union?

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Counterfactuals of the Civil War

Robert E. Lee in TexasCounterfactuals of the Civil War are always interesting to explore. What if this or that had or had not happened and how it would have changed the trajectory of the conflict can be interesting ways of exploring other possible histories.

One of the key participants of the war was Robert E. Lee. His command of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was a key reason why the Civil War lasted as long as it did. But what if General Lee had never joined the Confederate cause? How would that have impacted the struggle?

In the spring of 1861 Robert E. Lee was a 54-year old colonel in command of the First Regiment of Cavalry. The son of Revolutionary War hero “Lighthorse” Harry Lee, he had graduated from West Point in the class of 1829. He had served all over the United States, initially in the Corps of Engineers and later in the Cavalry.

During the Mexican War, Lee had served as a staff officer for General Winfield Scott, a fellow Virginian. He distinguished himself at the Battle of Cerro Gordo and was promoted to brevet major. He also fought at ContrerasChurubusco, and Chapultepec and was wounded at the last. By the end of the war, he had received additional brevet promotions to Lieutenant Colonel and Colonel, but his permanent rank was still Captain of Engineers and he would remain a Captain until his transfer to the cavalry in 1855.

In October 1859, Lee was back in his home at Arlington, Virginia. His father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis had died in 1857 leaving a rather messy estate. Custis was the step-grandson of George Washington. Lee took several leaves of absence from the army and became a planter and eventually straightened out the estate. Part of the estate resolution was the promised emancipation of the slaves.

When news of John Brown’s attack on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Lee was ordered by President James Buchanan to take command of detachments of militia, soldiers, and United States Marines, to suppress the uprising and arrest its leaders. Upon his arrival, Lee demanded the surrender of Brown. When he refused, Lee ordered the successful assault and capture of Brown and his men.

We know that Lee’s wife, Mary Anna Randolph Custis was a Unionist based on her letters. As the step-great granddaughter of one of the founders of the country she felt that the Union was inviolate. Lee attempted to follow Washington’s example in his personal and professional life.

Lee privately ridiculed the Confederacy in letters in early 1861, denouncing secession as “revolution” and a betrayal of the efforts of the founders. Writing to his son William Fitzhugh, Lee stated, “I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union.” While he was not opposed in principle to secession, Lee wanted all peaceful ways of resolving the differences between North and South—such as the Crittenden Compromise—to be tried first, and was one of the few to foresee a long and difficult war.

In late March or early April, Lee had turned a command in the Confederate Army. On April 18th, Lee turned down an offer by presidential aide Francis P. Blair to command the defense of Washington D.C. as a major general, as he feared that the job might require him to invade the South. But what if after an agonizing several days of discussion and thought, he had decided to remain with the Union?

Let’s say that Robert E. Lee had accepted Lincoln’s offer of a top command. How would it have changed history? Robert E. Lee was one of the top combat engineers in the country. In fact, he had worked on many of the coastal forts along the Atlantic coastline.

His first objective would have been securing the capital. In the real world, Maj. Gen. George McClellan, another highly skilled engineer, had created a system of defenses around Washington unequaled in the 19th century. Lee would have made absolutely sure that northern Virginia was secure for the Union in order to have an area in Virginia to marshal troops.

But would Virginia have seceded if Lee had decided to stay with the Union? Robert E. Lee was a well-known Virginian from one of Virginia’s First Families. His wife was related to the first President of the Union. It is perfectly rational to believe that Virginia may have split in three parts with northern and western Virginia remaining with the Union.

Robert E. Lee’s greatest accomplishments came on the field of battle. Without Lee, the Southern Confederacy would have had Generals Joseph E. Johnston and P.G.T. Beauregard as their leading commanders in the Eastern Theater. First Manassas or Bull Run might have been a rout in the other direction.

There probably would not have been a Peninsula Campaign. After a Union victory at Manassas, Lee would have knifed his huge Army of the Potomac east to Richmond. Once the Confederate capital had fallen, the entire rebellion might have collapsed, especially with a Virginian commanding the Union troops.

But what about slavery? A quick Union victory would have meant that a wartime emancipation would not have happened. More than likely, Lincoln’s idea for gradual emancipation and resettlement outside of the United States would have come to fruition. The South would not have been devastated. Slave owners would have been compensated.

The American Civil War has always been the great dividing line in American history. The country was totally changed by four years of war. We went from a mostly rural country to one that became more urbanized. Farming was the major occupation before the war while manufacturing gradually took over the American economy.

With one stroke Robert E. Lee might have changed all of that.


The End of Conciliation

This entry is part 11 of 18 in the series The Hard Hand of War

Throughout 1861 and well into 1862 conciliation was the official policy of the Lincoln administration. The hope was that the Confederate secessionists could be returned to the Union with a minimum of blood and destruction. In fact these hopes lasted right up to the repulse of McClellan’s advance on Richmond in the early summer of 1862.

In the space of the month of July Northern newspapers went from endorsing conciliation at the beginning of the month to publishing bitter editorials by the end of the month. The Lincoln administration realizing that their policy of conciliation would not work agreed. New orders were dispatched to the Union armies that called for the confiscation of Southern property. The armies were encouraged to live off the land as they moved through the Southern countryside.

Meanwhile, the Congress was debating a new and harsher confiscation bill proposed by Sen. Lyman Trumbull (R-IL). Put forward in December 1861 and debated for six months it called for the confiscation of all property, both real and personal, of anyone living where the rebellion made ordinary judicial proceedings impossible, provided that the owner was in arms against the Government or aiding in the rebellion. It also provided for the emancipation of the convicted person’s slaves and their transportation to a colony.

Supporters of conciliation within the Congress railed against the proposed bill as an indiscriminate assault against the rights of all Southerners, loyal or rebellious. Others denounced it as unconstitutional. Many said that it was bad policy. Their argument had been heard before, claiming that  the passage of the bill would turn any Union sentiment in the South into support for the Confederacy.

The Radical Republicans were having none of these arguments and insisted that the bill must be passed but in a stronger form than Trumbull’s draft. The bill was seen more as a vehicle for the emancipation of Southern slaves than anything else. On the other hand the War Democrats saw the bill as a necessary means to put down the rebellion. Both sides did agree that it was a means to punish the “landed proprietors” who they blamed for the rebellion.

After much debate the bill was referred to a select Senate committee who modified the bill to reflect some of the constitutional concerns of the moderate Republicans. The bill mandated that property could only be confiscated after an individual was convicted of inciting or engaging in rebellion. It permitted the President to emancipate the slaves of rebels who resided in areas still under rebellion six months after the bill’s passage. It also authorized the President to enlist blacks as soldiers. The bill was then sent to the House.

In the House the bill had a rockier time  and a select committee was formed in the hopes that it could break the various deadlocks. The House select committee reported out two bills. One dealt with confiscation, the other with emancipation. The confiscation bill was rejected outright by the Senate while the emancipation bill languished while it seemed that McClellan might capture Richmond and end the war.

In the Western Theater, Union forces had sliced deep into the Confederacy and by the end of May 1862 they had captured the strategic rail junction of Corinth, Mississippi. It seemed certain that with victories in both theaters the rebellion was about to be crushed. Then, the unexpected happened as it often does in war.

With the vast Union Army a mere five miles from Richmond the two armies fought a battle at Seven Pines. The Confederate commander General Joseph E. Johnston was severely wounded by shell fragments and was carried from the field. Jefferson Davis immediately appointed his military adviser General Robert E. Lee as his replacement.

The change in leadership of the Confederate Army in the field as a result of Seven Pines had a profound effect on the war. On June 24, 1862, McClellan’s massive Army of the Potomac was within 6 miles (9.7 km) of the Confederate capital of Richmond; Union soldiers wrote that they could hear church bells ringing in the city. Within 90 days, however, Robert E. Lee had driven McClellan from the Peninsula,Pope had been soundly beaten at the Second Battle of Bull Run, and the battle lines were 20 miles (32 km) from the Union capital in Washington.

Despite a string of victories, McClellan continued to withdraw south to the safety of Harrison’s Landing where he was supported by the guns of the Union Navy. It was here that he met with Lincoln and delivered to him a letter outlining his views on conciliation. But Lincoln simply ignored his letter and turned instead to military matters.

The President realized that the window for conciliation was rapidly closing and that the war had moved beyond that approach. The two houses of Congress finally came to a compromise agreement and presented the President with the bill which he signed on July 17, 1862. The bill because of its requirement that confiscation cases be tried in court did not severely damage the Southern economy.

However, it did accomplish two goals. It punished the Southern aristocracy who the Union Congress viewed as the ones who started the war. It was blow against slavery with its emancipation provisions. Most importantly, it signaled both the Southerners and the Union Army that the official policy of conciliation was ended.




Union Efforts at Conciliation: 1861

This entry is part 1 of 18 in the series The Hard Hand of War

Fort Sumter in 1860One hundred and fifty two years after the start of the American Civil War many Americans are uneducated about the facts surrounding the war. In most people’s minds the war between the North and South was just that a war between two monolithic opponents. Today, many Americans are unaware of the anti-war sentiments that were circulating throughout both regions of the United States. They also do not understand that the Union government was hoping for conciliation before blood was spilled.

Not all Northerners were in favor of the war. Not all Southerners were in favor of the Confederacy. In fact, there were many regiments composed of white southerners and many African-American regiments that were recruited in the South.

This series of posts attempts to explain the Union government’s policy to the South; from conciliation to total war. This descent into the hell of total war was gradual and measured and took years to occur.

The Union government of Abraham Lincoln did not begin the war with the goal of destroying the South. On the contrary, they attempted to persuade the Southerners to return to the Union without the violence that would characterize the latter stages of the war.

The Lincoln administration’s early policy was to spare Southern civilians from the horrors of war. Their constitutional rights were to be respected and their property was not to be touched in the course of military combat.

At the start of the war the Lincoln administration specifically renounced any intention of attacking slavery. In fact, Abraham Lincoln himself articulated his policy as preserving the Union. Lincoln believed that most white Southerners were lukewarm about secession. After all, who wants their lives and livelihoods disrupted?

Many of the Northern officers in high commands agreed with the Lincoln government’s policy, although like the South there were some firebrands who called for the abolition of slavery as the main objective of the war.

Lincoln felt that the Union war effort must not be seen as a strictly Republican policy but a national one that spanned their entire spectrum of the northern political parties. He appointed a number of prominent Democrats as major generals in order to carry out his goal.

These Democrats were more conciliatory to their fellow Southern Democrats and therefore shaped the military strategy for the first fifteen months of the war.

The Lincoln administration and its high command attempted a number of things to try to draw the South back in the Union. On the one hand they continued to try conciliation. The General-in-Chief Winfield Scott was a believer in a non-confrontational approach to the South.

He was supported in this by the new Secretary of State William Seward who believed that if military confrontations could be avoided, then the latent Unionist sentiment across the South would rise to the surface and the Southern states would return to the Union.

Scott drafted a memorandum for the incoming administration that laid out four possible courses of action that they could take.

First, they could undertake a full-scale invasion of the South. Scott proposed a timeline of two or three years. He also felt that the Union government would need an army of 300,000 trained troops under a superior general. Approximately one-third would be needed for garrisons as the army moved further south.

Scott foresaw a frightful loss of life and the destruction of property throughout the region. In addition he forecast a staggering cost of some $250 million with only devastation to show for it.

His second option was some compromise like the Crittenden proposal that would return the Southern states to the Union under terms acceptable to them.

Scott’s third option was to close Southern ports to trade using a naval blockade and collect the duties on foreign goods from warships stationed off Southern harbors. Considering that the United States Navy had less than sixty ships, this option might take some time to implement.

His final option was simply to “say to the seceded States, Wayward Sisters, depart in peace.” This last was a non-starter for the Lincoln administration. In essence, they would have admitted defeat before a shot had been fired.

When the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861 any possibility of a peaceful resolution of the crisis ended. Lincoln promptly called for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the rebellion.

Besides cheering those in the North who favored the return of the seceded states to the Union, it triggered the secession of the four states of the Upper South. The sides were now set and the Union government began to plan its strategy.


Union Spies: Lafayette C. Baker

This entry is part 8 of 12 in the series Spies of North and South

Lafayette Curry BakerMuch of the Union intelligence gathering was decentralized with the principal commanders employing their own network of agents. It has been said that Ulysses S. Grant had at least 100 spies throughout the Western Theater. Other commanders had their own networks. The President even had a spy, William Alvin Lloyd, to report directly to him.

One of the Union’s most daring spies was Lafayette Curry Baker who was rough-and-ready character who was not afraid of some violent work. Born in upstate New York in 1826, he moved to Michigan in his teens. In 1849, Baker joined the thousands who trekked to California after the discovery of gold.

Baker didn’t find gold but he found adventure. In San Francisco, he became a member of the Vigilance Committee, patrolling the fog-bound streets of the Barbary Coast at night in search of desperate criminals, or so Baker later advertised that adventurous episode of his life. In reality, he was a bouncer at a saloon and a police informer.

At the start of the war, Baker returned to the East where he endeavored to get an appointment as an officer. Unsuccessful in New York, he journeyed to Washington and sought an appointment with the General-in-Chief Winfield Scott in 1862. Pestering Scott’s aides, he finally got an appointment and dazzled the general with his plans for spying on the Confederates in Richmond.

Scott explained to Baker that his going to Richmond would not serve the Union Army’s needs. He needed detailed reports from the fields, how many men were in the Confederate Army of General P.G.T. Beauregard, where were they positioned, and where were they headed? How many pieces of field artillery did Beauregard have and how much rolling stock? All of this important data could not be found in the tearooms of Richmond, but in the field.

Baker assumed the identity of Sam Munson, a photographer, to infiltrate the Confederate lines. He was detained by Union troops who thought that he was a Confederate spy. Scott had him released and he crossed into Virginia where he was arrested by the Confederates as a spy.

He managed to get a note to General Beauregard and when he met in person he convinced him that he was a photographer. To make his story more believable, Baker gave Beauregard detailed information of Union troop movements, positions of heavy gun emplacements, and locations where ammunition and goods were stored.

After further interviews with Jefferson Davis and Vice-President Alexander Stephens, Baker was released on Davis’ orders and given a pass that allowed to photograph any of the southern military commanders, their troops, and camp sites, as he saw fit. However, he had no glass plates for photographs and that fact almost sent him to the hangman.

He was in Fredericksburg when he met several Confederate officers who he had photographed earlier. They were angry because they had not gotten their pictures. Growing suspicious, they had him arrested as a spy and when a real photographer revealed his camera to be useless, Baker realized that he could be executed. Using a penknife, he managed to loosen the bars and escape the prison and return to Union lines.

General Scott was so impressed that he made Baker a captain on the spot and put him in charge of his Intelligence Service. However, the truth was more mundane. He was, indeed, captured, and taken before Jefferson Davis who did not give him a pass to photograph the whole of the Confederacy but listened for some minutes to Baker’s inept lies and then pronounced him a spy and ordered him held for trial.

Baker did escape from the Richmond jail, then wandered for weeks through Virginia, living in shacks and the woods, stealing food where he could find it, as he desperately tried to regain the Union lines. He was picked up in Fredericksburg as a vagrant and later held as a spy, but he again escaped, this time with the help of local prostitute whom he had been staying with, and finally managed to return to Scott’s headquarters.

The information regarding Confederate forces he later relayed to Scott he had learned from a Union officer he had met in the Richmond prison and all of this information was outdated by the time Baker passed it on to Scott.

It was through his service for General Scott that Baker met Secretary of War Edwin McMasters Stanton, who took Baker under his own wing. He became the Secretary’s personal secret agent, conducting close surveillance of those Stanton distrusted most, other members in Lincoln’s cabinet, and high-ranking officers who were Lincoln’s appointments.

Stanton also wanted Allan Pinkerton out of the way as head of the Union Intelligence Service. Pinkerton answered only to Lincoln, and Stanton resented that. He, Edwin Stanton, should be in complete charge of the war, not this well meaning but uninformed Lincoln.

Stanton, through Baker’s intrigues, discredited Pinkerton, and, equally, General George McClellan, who had taken over the army, brilliantly organized and trained it to a peak fighting machine but proved indecisive in battle. Baker spent much of this time discovering McClellan’s mistakes and having reports of his blunders brought before Lincoln, or leaked to the Union press.

Pinkerton was relieved of duty after the Battle of Antietam for a supposed inability to learn of the true strengths and positions of Confederate forces under General Robert E. Lee. Stanton proposed that Baker be promoted to command the Intelligence Service with rank of full colonel.

Apparently, Baker’s techniques were identical to those he had practiced in San Francisco as a vigilante. He terrorized, threatened, and blackmailed suspects, both Union and Confederate, to obtain information. For three years, he continued to operate a haphazard espionage system for the North but most of his information was learned second-hand from scouts working directly for Union cavalry commands. He continued to have some spies behind the Confederate lines but Pinkerton had picked the best of these first.

Baker bragged that there is no single Confederate spy or agent behind Union lines who is unknown to him. Yet, flourishing within Washington were dozens of conspirators all plotting the assassination of the President. One group met regularly only a few blocks from Baker’s offices throughout the early part of 1865. Its leaders were, John Surratt, Jr. and a vainglorious actor from an illustrious theatrical family, John Wilkes Booth.

Within two days of his arrival in Washington from New York, Baker’s agents in Maryland had made four arrests and had the names of two more conspirators, including the actual presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth. Before the month was out, Booth along with David Herold were found holed up in a barn and Booth was himself shot and killed. Baker was promoted to the rank of brigadier general and received a generous share of the $100,000 reward.

However, Baker was sacked from his position as government spymaster by President Johnson who accused him of spying on him, a charge Baker admitted in his book which he published in response. He also announced that he had had Booth’s diary in his possession which was being suppressed by the Department of War and Secretary Stanton. When the diary was eventually produced, Baker claimed that eighteen vital pages were missing. It was suggested that these would implicate Stanton in the assassination.

Lafayette C. Baker died in 1868, supposedly from meningitis. However, his death was as mysterious as some parts of his life. Using an atomic absorption spectrophotometer to analyze several hairs from Baker’s head, Ray A. Neff, a professor at Indiana State University, determined the man was killed by arsenic poisoning rather than meningitis. He had been unwittingly been consuming it for months, mixed into imported beer provided by his wife’s brother.


Southerners Who Fought for The Union

Southerners Who Fought for The Union

Many Americans think that the Civil War was cut and dried. If you were a Southerner you fought for the Confederacy and if you were a Northerner you fought for the Union. This wasn’t always the case: southerners who fought for the Union were not uncommon. In fact, according to enlistment records 28% of the Union Army came from the states that we would call “the old South”.

There were more than a few Northerners who fought for the South. Both groups had a number of reasons for fighting for either the North or the Confederacy. The Unionist Southerners were opposed to slavery, for preserving the Union or may have been recent arrivals in the South. Fighting for the Confederacy was just against everything that they fundamentally believed in. So they moved to the North and joined a Federal unit.

Among the Federal Army and Navy officers were several very prominent individuals.

General George ThomasMaj. Gen. George Thomas was among the highest of the Federal Army officers who was born in the South. Thomas was born in Southampton County, Virginia in 1816. His family were slaveholders and they were in the vicinity of Nat Turner’s Rebellion in August 1831. It is believed that Thomas took his personal servant with him to war. When Thomas declared his loyalty to the Union his family turned his picture to the wall, burned his letters and vowed never to speak his name again.

Admiral David Farragut was another Southerner by birth, being born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1801. At the start of the war he was living in Norfolk, Virginia. His Southern birth made war-time authorities suspicious of his loyalty to the Union but his adopted brother David Dixon Porter vouched for him.

Maj. Gen. John Gibbon was born in Pennsylvania but was raised in North Carolina. His family were slave holders and his three brothers were in the Confederate Army. General-in-chief Winfield Scott was a Virginia by birth, having been born in Dinwiddie County. There were numerous other Southerners who fought as general officers for the Federal Army.

Of course, part of Virginia seceded and formed West Virginia. In the border states of Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri and Delaware the majority of fighting men joined the Federal Army but a substantial minority crossed into the Confederacy. As an example some 60,000 Marylanders joined the Union Army while 25,000 joined the Confederate Army.

There were entire units formed with recruits from the the South. One well known unit was the 1st Alabama Cavalry. It was made up of recruits fromUnion Forever Huntsville, Alabama and Memphis, Tennessee. This unit fought in the Western Theater and was part of Sherman’s March to the Sea. There were at least six other Alabama regiments in the Union Army. Five of these were African-American units.

There were 15 regiments and two artillery regiments from Arkansas. Six regiments and one battery were composed of African Americans. The state of Georgia contributed one battalion of infantry to the Union cause. Louisiana had nineteen regiments and three artillery batteries. Fourteen regiments and all of the artillery batteries were composed of African American troops.

North Carolina had a total of eight regiments with half of them being composed of African American troops. South Carolina mustered four African American infantry regiments. Tennessee had a substantial number of units in the Union Army. The majority of them were white Tennesseans with only five units of African American troops out of 55 total units recruited.

There were state units from Missouri, Maryland, West Virginia and California in the Confederate Army. In some cases these were partisan rangers, guerrillas and outlaw gangs.

The American Civil War proved the truth to the expression that you can’t tell a book by its cover.